‘Appetite For Life; The Biography of Julia Child’ by Noel Riley Fitch (Anchor Books; Random House) Having watched a movie which referred to Julia Child, I was keen to learn more about her real life. This book follows Child’s life: including her childhood in California from 1912, her working life in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and China, marriage and her travels with her husband to France, Germany and Norway. One of the many things I loved about this book was that, after attending The Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and then teaching some classes, it was only at about 50 that Child decided to write her first book. Child was keen to bring the mystery of French cuisine to USA home cooks. The story of how her first book was written, published and then took off lead to her initial sessions cooking on TV. Child was one of the first people ever to cook dishes on TV. This book relates Child’s wonderful marriage to Paul, her close friendship with her sister, Paul’s twin-brother and his wife, friends, the Childs’ travels, experiences and the interesting story of her cookbooks and television shows.
‘At Home; A Short History Of Private Life’ by Bill Bryson (Doubleday; Random House) My dad recommended that I read this book. Inspired by his own home in Norfolk in England, Bryson divides the book into chapters of each room in a house. Each chapter then describes the history and evolution of each room. Through Bryson’s extensive research we discover a myriad of fascinating facts, including why hallways are called halls, why out of all the hundreds of spices it is salt and pepper that we keep on our table and that during the late 1800s people suffered from arsenic poisoning from wallpaper! He makes learning about social politics, food preferences and availability, health issues, fashion, design, architecture and electrical advances interesting and relevant. Bryson’s style is informal, so reading the book is like walking through a home with a very informative, interesting and funny guide. I was astonished, but delighted to receive a hand written postcard from Bryson in reply to my letter to him thanking him for writing such an interesting book. Thank you to my dad for recommending this wonderful book.
‘Coco Chanel; The Legend And The Life’ by Justine Picardie (Harper Collins Publishers) This is a beautifully respectful book about the legendary Coco Chanel. From a very humble, bewildering and lonely childhood, Chanel was influenced by the nuns’ clothes from her early childhood and equestrian clothes from her early adulthood. Looking at alternatives to the restrictive women’s underclothes of the early 1900s, Chanel started combining men’s clothing and created much more streamlined and practical clothes for women from about 1920 until the 1970s. Chanel created the simple, pared-down look and this book is well illustrated with personal photos and clothing designs. This book explains in detail Chanel’s personal history as well as the history of fashion during that time and describes how and why she was so influential and became so famous. A great read.
‘A Short History Of The World’ by Geoffrey Blainey (Viking: Penguin Group) I thoroughly recommend this book. It covered world history in a very readable, interesting style. Starting from Africa and working through the rising of the seas and population dispersement through to the present connection of the world through the internet, I was fascinated. Blainey discusses the isolation of America, Australia, the Islands and Japan and the cultures that were created because of this isolation, the importance of the night sky, the impact of the discovery of fire, origins of religions, cultures, the impact of the invention of the wheel, clocks, paper, glass, steam, political as well as social change, warfare, the space race, what triggered the wars and their aftermath. I was riveted! I was also amazed to receive a hand-written letter from Blainey in response to my thank you letter to him for writing this fascinating book.
‘Good Living Street; The Fortunes of My Viennese Family’ by Tim Bonyhady (Allen & Unwin) When I was studying design at uni I was fascinated by the fabulous Viennese Secessionists who were working in the early part of 1900s. One of my favourite designers, Josef Hoffman, created the most beautiful complete apartment including custom-designed furniture, wall coverings, glassware and silverware for the Gallia family in Vienna. The Gallias then commissioned a portrait of Hermine Gallia by Gustav Klimt for their apartment. Unfortunately the apartment was destroyed during the World War I. It was rumoured that some of the beautiful items from the apartment were rescued before the apartment was ruined. At uni, I was fascinated by the Hoffman designs and the story that some of the pieces may have been rescued. To my surprise and delight, this book is the true story of the two Gallia daughters and how they rescued much of the furniture and some of the artwork from the apartment before it was ruined and fled with them to nearby Cremorne, Sydney! The story is told by Bonyhady, a grandson of one of the Gallia daughters. The books tells of the history and journey of these beautiful pieces. Stored in a compact apartment, post-war, they probably looked quite out-of-place, but what treasure! After much heartache, the Klimt portrait was sold by London dealers and the furniture was eventually bought by the National Gallery of Victoria. This is a sensitively written book covering family relationships, life in Vienna during the early 1900s, design, style, art, the tragedy of war and assimilation in a new country. I loved this book!
‘Love & Hunger; Thoughts On The Gift Of Food’ by Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin) I heard the author, Wood, talking on radio about this book. It sounded intriguing! The book follows her life and important food-related events, family traditions and ideas. Wood grew up in at a similar time as I did and I roared with laughter about some of the events and ideas of her childhood. I loved her mum’s wonderful friend, Mrs Spain and remembered a fabulously stylish friend of my mum’s. As well as sections on soup recipes, how to chop an onion and what to stock in your pantry, I loved the section on food as gifts, was interested in the section on food for those in need and had my eyebrows raised for the whole chapter on mailing food. Who would have thought! I have tried a few of the recipes (the Lamb Tangine with Dates and Raisins is delicious!) and intend to try more – Mild Salmon Curry, Whole Orange Cake, Florence Nightingale Soup and Jane’s Citrus Couscous. A fascinating book. I have recommended this book to so many people.
‘1,227 QI Facts To Blow Your Socks Off’ Compiled by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson and James Harkin (Faber and Faber; Bloomsbury House) I love the “QI” TV show hosted by Stephen Fry, so I was very excited to discover this book of fascinating, funny and, at times, alarming facts. Apparently the research team read a huge range of books and took notes of things that are interesting. Then they collated the facts to see which were the strangest. Who knew that ‘most bees buzz in the key of A, unless they are tired, when they buzz in the key of E’, or that ‘Buzz Aldrin’s mother’s maiden name was Moon’, ‘ants nod to each other when they pass’ or that ‘The Netherlands exports more soy sauce than Japan’. A fun, fascinating and bizarre read!
Read my interview with James Harkin here.
Visit the QI podcast page here.
‘Shakespeare’s Restless World’ by Neil MacGregor (Allen Lane; Penguin Group) I loved reading MacGregor’s ‘A History Of The World In 100 Objects’, so it was no surprise to me that I enjoyed this next book of his so much. MacGregor was previously Director of the National Gallery in London and is now Director of the British Museum. This book focuses on 20 objects during the late 15oos and early 1600s when Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. The objects include medals celebrating navigational feats, silver goblets showing the changes of religion, eating forks showing food preferences and availability, paintings alluding to succession issues, discovered gold treasure and the evolution of the Union Jack flag. MacGregor has a wonderfully readable style, interwoven with quotes from other experts and beautiful photos. The history of this era with it’s political, religious, scientific issues and ideas are brought clearly and fascinatingly to life through this wonderful and enjoyable book.
‘The Fossil Hunter; Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World’ by Shelley Emling (Palgrave Macmillan) My youngest daughter brought home an early reading book from the school library a few years ago which she read with me. The book was about a young girl who found pieces of interesting stone on the beach near where she lived to sell to tourists to help support her family. The ‘interesting pieces of stone’ turned out to be some of the earliest known fossils. I became fascinated in finding out more about this girl, Mary Anning, who lived in Lyme Regis on the English coast in the early 1800s. ‘The Fossil Hunter’ is the true story about Mary who combed the beaches and sold these curious pieces of stone to visitors to the area until one day a scientist bought some of the stones and asked her to show him where they were from. When they pieced the fossils together, the scientific world was shocked – first presuming it was a crocodile and then discovering that it was another creature altogether – the first dinosaur had been discovered and named an Ichthyosaurus. This book describes Mary’s dealings with the scientists of the day and her further discoveries such as the Plesiosaurus and Squaloraja. A beautifully researched read about a girl, her discoveries and the difficulties she had in her era both because of her gender and the religious and scientific thoughts of the time. Thank you to my youngest daughter for inspiring this read.
Read my interview with Shelley Emling here.
‘The Private Lives of The Impressionists’ by Sue Roe (Harper Perennial; HarperCollins Publishers) Wow! This was a great read. Introducing the history and political climate that the Impressionist group experienced, this book discusses the artists’ painting developments, friendships, exhibitions, careers and what was going on around them. I loved reading about Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissaro, Cassatt, Sisley, Morisot, Manet and Cezanne; what they did day-to-day, their struggles and triumphs and what made them tick. Roe discusses what the Impressionists were trying to achieve, the impact of the camera, their struggle with the established art world and public, what they achieved and why they are so famous now. Roe’s research and respect for the artists is evident in this very readable book about such an important painting style.